1/27/11 - beef

In today's encore excerpt - beef. In nature, cows graze and eat prairie grass. In the beef industry cows are taken to CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—where they live in stalls and are fed corn. It is this beef that ends up on our dinner tables:

"So then why [aren't steers fed grass]? Speed, in a word, or, in the industry's preferred term, 'efficiency.' Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and for half a century now the industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal's allotted span on earth. 'In my grandfather's time, cows were four or five years old at slaughter,' [a CAFO operator] explained. 'In the fifties, when my father was ranching, it was two or three years old. Now we get there at fourteen to sixteen months.' Fast food, indeed. What gets a steer from 80 to 1,100 pounds in fourteen months is tremendous quantities of corn, protein and fat supplements, and an arsenal of new drugs. ...

"[At the CAFO's] thundering hub, three meals a day for thirty-seven thousand animals are designed and mixed by computer. A million pounds of feed pass through the mill each day. Every hour of every day a tractor trailer pulls up to the loading dock to deliver another fifty tons of corn. ... [to which are added] thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplements ... vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen and ... fifty-pound sacks of antibiotics—Rumensin and Tylosin. Along with alfalfa hay and silage (for roughage), all these ingredients will be automatically blended and then piped into the parade of dump trucks that three times a day fan out from here to keep the [CAFO's] eight and a half miles of trough filled. ...

"We've come to think of 'corn-fed' as some kind of old-fashioned virtue, which it may well be when you're referring to Midwestern children, but feeding large quantities of corn to cows for the greater part of their lives is a practice neither particularly old nor virtuous. ...

"Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be about as much as their systems can tolerate. 'I don't know how long you could feed them this ration before you'd see problems,' [Vetenarian] Dr. Mel Metzin said; another vet told me the diet would eventually 'blow out their livers' and kill them. Over time, the acids eat away at the rumen wall, allowing bacteria to enter the animal's bloodstream. These microbes wind up in the liver, where they form abscesses and impair the liver's function. Between 15 percent and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers. ... What keeps a feedlot animal healthy—or healthy enough—are antibiotics."


Michael Pollan


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals


Penguin Books


Copyright 2006 by Michael Pollan


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